What does it take to be a crabber in the Salish Sea?
Members of Lummi Nation say that for them, fishing is different.
Tribal and nontribal fishers alike must keep to the seasons and mind their catch quotas. Still, for most Washington residents, fishing is a privilege granted by the state government, said Jay Julius, a Lummi member who has a seat on the tribe’s council.
The tribe, on the other hand, has been fishing for 150 generations, Julius said.
“To us, culture is fish and fish is culture,” he said. “It’s more than a privilege, it’s who we are.
“It’s in our DNA.”
‘The easy part’
Julius needed less than an hour on Sept. 15 to pull up seven crab pots he had set that morning, within sight of the BP Cherry Point dock. With the help of his daughter, Teja Julius, and another family member, Austin Brockie, Julius grabbed 160 or 170 pounds of legal-size Dungeness crab out of the pots.
For Julius, that equated to about $800 — a fraction of his total haul during a 24-hour fishing derby on Sept. 15-16.
The payoff wasn’t as easy as it looked.
“The life of a fisherman isn’t just when the season’s open,” Julius said. “We’re trying to figure out different strategies, or how to improve our fishing. So for me it was the week before, staying up at night, thinking where I’m going to set and how deep I’m going to go, and what the tides are doing.”
The day before he went crabbing, Julius ordered 1,100 pounds of frozen salmon that had to be chopped for bait.
“It’s a process,” Julius said in an interview a week after the 24-hour crab derby. “You guys got to see the easy part.”
One-day crab seasons in the summer provide an economic lift to tribes by allowing them to bring crab to market when prices are higher.
“We do that because of the economic value of it,” said Dana Wilson, a Lummi member who has been fishing since he was a child, half a century ago. “We get more value out of those crab fishing shorter periods and feeding the market, rather than flooding the market.”
A 24-hour season can be hectic.
“Look at it this way,” Wilson said. “If you had 24 hours to pay your bills, would you sleep?”
Not all fishing is about making ends meet.
Julius related a story his uncle liked to tell, about “how we were so dirt poor and we didn’t even know it.”
“You go to the outside world and we’re looked at as dirt poor, but in our eyes we’re rich,” Julius said. “Everything’s taken care of. Food’s right there in the river. But the most important thing is family and relationship and (being) close with all your immediate relatives and a village.”
Three years ago, the tribe revived the traditional practice of reefnet fishing. Fishers off Cherry Point lay a net between two canoes. Then they pull up the net when a school of sockeye salmon swims between them.
Tribal members built the canoe and the net by hand.
Why would the tribe, which ordinarily uses the same modern technologies as other fishers, bother with an ancient fishing practice that isn’t as productive?
“You’re speaking financially,” Julius said in response to this question. “It’s not about the quantity of fish that we caught. It’s about the culture and the history instilled in the youth that are on those canoes.”
“Reefnet is something that we were gifted from our creator, and reintroducing that back, and the importance of that, is something that is taking place today as we speak,” Julius said.
The old fishing techniques, unperturbed by the sound of motors, provide something more than a connection to history for Julius.
“It’s complete silence,” Julius said.
“There are many ways of fishing that might not make financial sense, but some fishermen don’t need much in terms of financial gain,” Julius said. “Believe it or not, for me a large portion of my fishing is my therapy. It’s being one with the water and being out there in the islands, in my homeland.”
“When I go to Stuart Island and camp for a few days with my son and daughter, I just really appreciate no planes flying over and no cars,” Julius said.
“We get so caught up in today and what’s normal today. When you look and sit and listen, we’re surrounded by chaos, everywhere.”
Wilson, 58, tagged along with his father when he went seine fishing for Alaska Packers Association in the early 1960s. By age 14 or 15, Wilson was taking his dad’s boat out on the Nooksack River to fish on his own.
When he was a teenager, all of his friends fished, too.
“There wasn’t a person that wasn’t — that I knew,” Wilson said.
Wilson learned to read the sea from his grandmother, who could tell from her front porch where to find squawfish and grunters at low tide.
“That’s how she survived,” Wilson said. “There was no store for her to go to.”
Now Wilson passes on what he knows to his grandchildren.
“That’s how things get handed down to us, and that doesn’t change.”
Wilson and Julius, 40, both remember when salmon were more plentiful. A strong El Niño in the winter of 1997-98 warmed the water off Puget Sound, making it harder for salmon to survive.
The Lummi fleet of purse seiners declined from more than 30 to just two or three at one point, Julius said.
“The returns have just struggled. The fish are struggling,” he said. “A halibut fisherman could catch a lot of halibut — and big halibut. Now you really have to hunt for them. The sizes are getting a little smaller. It’s a little tougher to come across those 100-pounders.”
About 450 fishing vessels are registered at Lummi Nation, down from more than 700 in the 1980s, tribal Chairman Tim Ballew said.
“We’re currently the largest native commercial fishing fleet in the country, and for the most part we always have been,” Ballew said. “But there’s definitely been a decline.”
Hundreds of tribal members who were forced out of fishing by weak sockeye runs got retraining through federal grants totaling $4.3 million to Lummi Nation alone.
The most recent grant in December 2014, for $882,032, helped 630 Lummi fishers who were laid off find new jobs.
“You have a lot of people ... who were lifelong fishermen and then had to go get an education and move on,” Julius said.
Fishing remains important to a lot of those who lost their livelihoods in it. Tribal members in other professions schedule their vacations around fishing seasons — not for recreation but as a second income.
Lummi members who are terminally ill often say they want to go fishing again before they die.
“It means that much to that man that he’ll say, ‘If I could do it one more time, that’s what I would do,’” Wilson said. “It’s not go to the moon. It’s not go to the mall. It’s not go have a steak. It’s not to go visit Hawaii or Mexico or on a vacation — bring me fishing one more time.”